Nicholas Thompson: Kennan and Nitze ... Last of the Cold War Giants

Roundup: Talking About History

Nicholas Thompson, in the Boston Glob (4-3-05):

IN THE SUMMER of 1943, George Kennan and Paul Nitze met on a train going from New York to Washington. Neither knew who the other was, nor was there any reason they should have. Kennan was a 39-year-old diplomat, just returned from Portugal. A Wall Street man four years Kennan's junior, Nitze was a second-level official at the Board of Economic Warfare. But Nitze found something compelling about Kennan and sat down across from the distinguished-looking gentleman in the dining car. The pair started talking and began a friendship that would last throughout the Cold War, a war that both men did much to define but about which they would almost never agree.

Kennan and Nitze didn't cross paths again until a few years later, when the two worked together at the State Department as Washington was remaking the postwar world. In the interim, Kennan had served in Moscow, making his reputation with his famous 1946 "Long Telegram" identifying the Soviet Union as a malignant expansionist state and then coming back to lead the writing of the Marshall Plan. Nitze had also gone abroad, surveying the destruction of Hiroshima as vice chairman of the Strategic Bombing Survey and gaining a reputation as a skilled numbers man. Upon his return, he advised Kennan on the Marshall Plan, and then served as his deputy on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff.

But Kennan didn't stay long in the capital. Less than a year after Nitze joined his staff, Kennan took the train back to New York and except for brief stints as ambassador to Russia and Yugoslavia did not return to the federal government. He would spend almost all of the next half century at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, writing a stream of books establishing him as one of America's foremost diplomatic historians and the most cogent critic of its nuclear build-up. Nitze remained in Washington and more or less never left. His first job was to create our nuclear arsenal; his final job, as Ronald Reagan's lead arms-control negotiator, was to start dismantling it.

Their friendship, however, endured. The two remained in touch, dining together from time to time and corresponding cordially, even though each believed that the other was advocating policies that increased the chances of nuclear obliteration. "I don't disagree with George on anything except matters of substance," Nitze used to say.

To some, Kennan's death last month at age 101less than sixth months after Nitze's passing last October at 97seemed to close the door on an era. "One hundred years from now, historians of the Cold War will look at the legacy of George Kennan and Paul Nitze in the same way that American historians look at the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams," John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of Cold War strategy at Yale University and Kennan's authorized biographer, said in an interview last week.

Nitze and Kennan may not have had quite the influence of Adams and Jefferson. But the two Cold Warriors did shape foreign policy thinking during the most dangerous period of this country's history and, to some degree, today's foreign policy as well. It's a cliche that people in government want to make the world safer for their grandchildren, but in this case the cliche feels particularly fitting. Paul Nitze was my mother's father, and, at the least, we all know now that the war he and George Kennan helped define didn't end in the catastrophe that so many feared for so long....

Over the following decades, the two men would define the poles of establishment thinking on anti-Soviet strategy. Kennan wanted the United States to counter the Soviets through political force and the strength of our example. Pursuing a nuclear or conventional military advantage was folly. "No one is good enough, wise enough, steady enough, to have control over the volume of explosives that now rest in the hands of this country," he said in a 1977 interview. As for nuclear weapons, "these things shouldn't exist at all."

To Nitze, a nuclear war was theoretically winnable; or, at the least, this country was likely to lose a nuclear war if it didn't act like it wanted to win one, and if it let the Soviets gain even a slight strategic advantage. While Kennan dismissed civil defense, Nitze built a bomb shelter at his farm in Maryland. In the early '80s, my cousins and I would play in it. ...

In 1999, my grandfather published an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that nuclear weapons could be abolished because of the advanced capabilities of conventional weapons. After it was published, Kennan responded to his nonagenarian young friend.

"Dear Paul: Warmest congratulations on your recent New York Times article, with every word of which I agree," he wrote. "In the light of our long-standing friendship and mutual respect, it is a source of deep satisfaction to me to find the two of us, at our advanced ages, in complete accord on questions that have meant so much to each of us, even when we did not fully agree, in times gone by."

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